Ahead of key Uttar Pradesh elections, state police accused of being ‘mercenaries’ of hardline Hindu nationalist government
Fatima Begum’s son, Altaf, was said to have hanged himself in prison, but his family tell a different story. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman/The Guardian
According to police in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, it was suicide. The young Muslim man they had brought into their custody had, out of despair, killed himself in the police station toilets. But, as photos of the scene emerged, so too did suspicions. The 22-year-old man, Altaf, was 165cm (5ft 5in) tall and weighed 60kg (9.5 stone), but the toilet tap he had supposedly hanged himself from was just 76cm off the ground and made of flimsy plastic. And why, as the police later claimed in court, was the CCTV in the police station mysteriously not working that day?
Family and friends tell a very different story: that Altaf, a Muslim man living in the town of Kasganj, was in love with and planned to marry a Hindu girl. That powerful local Hindu vigilante groups opposed to interfaith unions found out and reported him to the police. And that on 9 November 2021, Altaf was arrested and tortured to death in police custody and his family pressured to keep quiet.
“The police murdered my son and then gave me money to say he was depressed and took his own life,” says Altaf’s father, Chand Miya, an illiterate mason who has taken the case to the state high court. “But I will not stay quiet, I want justice.”
Last Friday, the courts ordered Altaf’s body to be exhumed and a new postmortem examination to be carried out.
Altaf was not the first to die in such circumstances in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which is holding a high-stakes election this month.
In six cases examined by the Guardian of deaths in custody and police shootings of suspects, allegedly in self defence, from 2018 onwards, those accused of carrying out and covering up killings are the same: the Uttar Pradesh police, under the rule of the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government.
Polls this month will decide if Yogi Adityanath, who has pursued a fiercely Hindu nationalist agenda, will remain Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister. Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty
The victims of these alleged unlawful killings were all from the communities that Adityanath’s government, with its sectarian Hindu nationalist agenda, is accused of routinely targeting and oppressing: Muslims, who make up 20% of the state’s population and who have been subjected to increased lynchings, hate speech and prejudicial legislation, and Dalits, who are at the bottom of India’s oppressive Hindu caste system and were previously referred to as “untouchables”.
The elections will decide whether to return Adityanath’s state government to power for another five years. It is being seen as a referendum on Hindu nationalist politics – the push for India to become a Hindu, rather than secular, nation – on both a state and national level, and is happening against a backdrop of rising religious intolerance and anti-Muslim hate speech in India.
Not one officer who fatally shot someone in Uttar Pradesh in the past five years faced disciplinary action.
Not long after he took office in 2017, Adityanath, a hardline Hindu monk, made it clear that his agenda would be twofold: a fierce promotion of Hindu nationalism and a tough crackdown on crime. “Agar aparadh karenge, toh thok diye jayenge [If anyone commits a crime, he will be knocked down],” he said in June 2017.
From that point on, lawyers, activists and ex-police officers allege that “thok denge” – slang for “shoot them” – became unofficial policy in Uttar Pradesh. Police allegedly began carrying out “instant justice”, maiming or executing those they deemed to be criminals, and were professionally rewarded for doing so.
Lawyers and families of victims describe an atmosphere of terror in Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims and lower-caste men are picked up on the streets and killed with alleged impunity by police, either in what are known as “encounter killings”, in which officers fatally shoot their captives and claim it was in self-defence, or in police custody, where they are beaten or tortured to death.
The same police accused of the murders are often then responsible for the investigations. Subsequently, police reports are often not lodged, evidence and CCTV footage routinely disappears, charges filed to the courts are watered down to “accidental death” and some cases disappear altogether.
“The police are now mercenaries of the Yogi government,” says Rajeev Yadav, an activist running for a seat in the forthcoming election in Azamgarh, which has a large Muslim population and has experienced multiple “encounter killings” by police.